Yellow Ostrich, Indie Releases and Pay-What-You-Can vs. Pay-What-You-Should

A friend made a Skins-inspired Grooveshark playlist that managed to break the hold Beach House and Kanye have had over me. The first two songs, by Yellow Ostrich, really grabbed my attention, and some googling led me to Yellow Ostrich’s site on Bandcamp. Bandcamp allows artists to set up pages and sell their stuff directly to fans for a fee.

Yellow Ostrich, aka Alex Schaaf, offers the album The Mistress as a pay-what-you-can download. This offers an interesting dilemma, because in order to download the album, even for free, you have to click on the Buy Now button, which brings up this box:

So, of course you could just enter “$0” into that field and download the album for free. But something about doing that struck me as just…wrong. Maybe this is because free downloads or getting files from friends strips the question of “value” from the transaction. That is, you know that copping a new album is worth something — but you don’t have to think about how much it’s worth.

Putting the question of worth to the consumer is a brilliant strategy. When I encountered the box, I had to interrogate what I thought about the two songs I heard, and work out the likelihood that I’d enjoy the rest of the album. I could have listened to all of the tracks, which were streaming on the site, but I was in the midst of getting ready for work. I especially liked one song, “Whale,” but wasn’t over-the-moon about the other, “Hate Me Soon.” $1 seemed like too little, but $5 seemed like too much to pay for an unknown quantity. I settled on $3.

The Mistress is just about 30 minutes long and I’m on my 10th spin since this morning. I’ve basically paid $0.03 per listen, per song. And now I know I’d have paid a lot more. It’s pretty much fantastic from start to finish; easy to listen to, but also kind of poignant and multi-layered. It reminds me a little bit of early French Kicks.

This Bandcamp idea, and others like it, open up a whole new world. By engaging fans more intimately with the artist and his or her success, the listener has a bigger stake. For example, Schaaf also wants to release The Mistress on vinyl — but that costs money. So he launched a Kickstarter project to get it funded.

I pledged $30.

While I like cutting out the middleman, this doesn’t mean I’m convinced that independent releases are always the best model. In many ways, it’s just easier for an artist to be on a label — then the artist doesn’t have to worry about booking shows or getting recording spaces or how they’re going to distribute. All they have to do is make music. I suppose the right model depends on the temperament and desire of the artist, and how much control he or she is willing to give up.

Anyway, here’s “Whale,” the song that reeled me in:


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